Update: Vancouver Food Policy Council

It’s been a busy few months, and I’ve sadly been neglecting this blog due to professional and personal responsibilities. I can’t come close to catching up on it all, but will aim to update in short spurts.

Most recently, I did have  the fortunate opportunity of being invited by the Vancouver Food Policy Council to present as part of their March 2014 meeting, the theme of which was “engaging across diversity.”  I was happy to come and share my previous research work, which looked at questions around participation and engagement within community gardens in the Vancouver area. It was interesting to be able to come back to the findings with more reflection and experience.

In my mind, what was particularly exciting about the meeting was the animated but respectful discussion that emerged afterwards about working with diverse individuals and groups across food programming sectors. Thank you to everyone who attended for listening and for all the conversation that followed.

I will very briefly mention a couple threads caught my attention from the discussion and are still rolling around in mind:

1) The first revolved around the tension that can occur between food security vs.  food sustainability approaches. Historically, food security has been foremost an anti-hunger endeavor. It’s focused around issues of food access and emergency food supplies – food banks being a great example.  On the other hand, food sustainability approaches are often identified with ‘being green’ or environmental activism.  These approaches have primarily been concerned with issues around environmentally sound consumption and production practices.  To environmental justice advocates, this kind of split will sound familiar. While many organizations or frameworks attempt to work towards both of these goals to create a “just and sustainable” food system (i.e. Vancouver’s food charter) – in practice, the going can get tough.

It was evident in my own research where reducing food cost was a seemingly low priority when comparing among all those surveyed. Lower income individuals were much more likely to rank this issue highly, BUT they represented a much smaller proportion of individuals.  It’d be easy for this potentially important finding to be obscured when looking at overall statistics.  Then, the questions start.  Why the gap in the first place? What is the best way to resolve this? Should we at all? If so, how to prioritize need?  Directly, or indirectly?  As I listened to comments, I heard points from both approaches.  It made me think – and I would throw this out to others – going forward, what are the best ways to moderate and integrate the potentially competing priorities of these approaches?

2) The second also revolved around a balance, between i) acknowledging the agency of individuals and groups (in this case, around the choice to participate or not to participate in food programming), while ii) continuing to address where there may be larger structural barriers at play. The conversation at the meeting largely focused on the second point. While there’s certainly direct barriers like fees and language, there’s also indirect barriers ranging from bureaucratic know-how,  wait lists (that could penalize those who move more frequently), to social networks, and even the “individual-plot” structure of many gardens.  There was also a discussion around the wide range of alternative food growing/utilization outlets, in the form of backyard and communal gardens, ethnic grocers, community kitchens and more.

Importantly, a couple people also brought up the need to acknowledge that individuals may simply not be interested in a particular program, and also to be careful to not make assumptions either way. For those working in policy and programming, a necessary but potentially difficult skill is balancing respect for individual/group autonomy and agency while addressing all the other elements at play.

In any case, there lies an important reminder to not to be overly prescriptive towards others in these discussions. In fact, likely a good reminder for most of us, in life and work!

Meetings of the VFPC are open to members of the public. Feel free to take in a future meeting.

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